Disposable DIS-Dain: Berlin Biennale Critics Miss the Point
The DIS-curated Berlin Biennale is something of an outrage, but if you're mad, you're probably just mad.
Seeking Representation: Directions to KW, (2016) Still from CENTER JENNY, (2013) © Ryan Trecartin. Image courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
When Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art announced in September 2014 that DIS Magazine would curate the 9th Berlin Biennale (bb9), Alexander Forbes wrote that the magazine founders-as-curators might bring a “post-internet” exhibition to the German capital, “an exciting prospect for a biennial that hasn’t had a widely-celebrated edition since Documenta 14 curator Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic’s outing in 2008.” Critical voices post-opening, however, are less excited. Scathing headlines emerged: The Guardian called the show a “slick, sarcastic joke,” while Hyperallergic’s headline touted a “Vast Obsolescent Pageant of Irrelevance.” On the theme “The Present in Drag,” DIS co-founder Lauren Boyle now notably summarized, “Instead of pulling talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious.” For bb9, which makes use of a business school, the non-exhibition spaces of an art academy, the ground floor of a former World War II telecommunications bunker that now houses a private art collection, Kunst-Werke, and a sightseeing boat as official venues, DIS presented a hybrid of an uncanny imitation of the present and an eerie speculation on the future, one so exaggerated it is impossible to believe that their accelerationist viewpoint is anything but one big critique, a mirror held up to the sector of the art world that the curators themselves are both a part of and helped to create.
In recent editions, the Berlin Biennale has suffered what has come to be known as “biennalization,” a focus on the global that creates a homogenization of such art spectacles, whether in New York, Berlin, Sao Paolo, or Gwangju. The eighth Berlin Biennale was called the most “global” biennial yet, with ‘“global” issues like “migration, borders, post-colonialism, center versus periphery, urban decay versus nature, currency, and political discord” all represented. Apparently, still thirsting for this type of work, and blinded by post-internet aesthetics, critics of this year’s focused exhibition—which foregoes attempts at global activism in favor of a localized, pointed critique of the art world itself—tend to miss the point.
Thanks to promotional photos, Jon Rafman’s View of Pariser Platz installation was already symbolic of bb9 before the show even opened, so during opening weekend, visitors were known to wait upwards of 45 minutes to experience its 195 seconds of apocalyptic VR narrative. Viewers donned an Oculus Rift to see their exact surroundings, tourists in front of the Brandenburger Tor and all, only for the the ground to fall out from underneath them, and the tourists to become ominous-looking zombified forms, flying around the sky like vultures before aligning in soldier-like rows around the viewer. For millennial viewers who spend time immersed in art (and the fashion, music, and otherwise social realms art of this vein is connected to), in both IRL and URL worlds, works like Rafman’s, and token works by “post-internet” superstars like Ryan Trecartin, Hito Steyerl, Timur Si-Qin, and Katja Novitskova, feel less like art and more like seasonal pulls from a world that already exists, warped into an amusement park, enforcing the view, already popular among young, international creatives, that Berlin is indeed an adult playground.
Writing for Hyperallergic, Dorian Batyca tries to tear apart Jon Rafman’s “simulacrum,” claiming it to be ”emblematic of everything that is wrong with BB9: While the world is crumbling down around us, we are asked to don the Occulus Rift [sic] and forget all about it. It would have been great to see Rafman’s work demonstrate the slightest bit of sensitivity to the immense social and political importance of Pariser Platz—the site itself, not as a place full of zombies and lifeless falling bodies, but one where alternative social horizons, movements, and events could be imagined.” As laid out by the framework of “the present in drag,” the past is intentionally ignored, in favor of a reflection on the ahistorical present. Rafman ruminates only on the viewer’s immediate surroundings, making viewers feel stuck in this present-geographical situation, something that, in the wake of the history and dynamism of this place, certainly does feel uncomfortable. But, yes, that is the point.
Debora Délmar Corp.’s juice bar installation, MINT, has also been criticized, for simply recreating rather than subverting existing structures, this time by The Guardian’s Jason Farago. Farago perceives that the artist’s “bottles of green gunk are accompanied by an ad campaign that pitches self-worth through consumption (health neuroses are big business – LOL).” But if the Guardian author had read the work’s description, he would have known the ad campaign uses the formal language of the heavily-branded juice bar to “[comment] on the displacement of value, food as a luxury item, and the marketing and economic structures that underlie trends and health products,” and to “[take] on the perennial “greenwashing” of commodities and how social consciousness is reinforced by consumer habits.”
In his conclusion, Farago laments, “It may be idealistic, I know, to insist that arts institutions have a role to play in considering and changing that ghastly reality, and all the others of our damaged world.” The critique falls short, as the author confuses near-indistinguishable simulations of “ghastly realities” with the complicity and perpetuation of the same. If you can think straight while being bombarded with Ryan Trecartin’s barrage of overstimulated narrative, it’s possible to see the politics of the post-post-internet emerging.
Bb9’s merits lie in its ability to prompt critical reflection as a response to its grotesque depiction of the post-contemporary. One project, Architecture, by collective åyr (formerly AIRBNB Pavilion), explores private spaces become public, an architectural model of the future of the sharing economy, grimly reminding us of the sinister potential of platforms like Airbnb, if we abuse them. The website Airbnb vs Berlin breaks down the use and abuse of Airbnb in the city, and exemplifies that this is something this city’s residents are thinking about and affected by. Is Architecture complicit in allowing professional Airbnb hosts to raise the rent prices in their cities? No, quite the opposite. As the work’s description reads, the project is “casting a skeptical light on ideas of “openness,” “connection,” “breaking boundaries,” and other mantras of the tech industry and the corporate architecture of recent decades.” Their imagined future is impossibly undesirable, a warning sign against the future of increasingly popular neoliberal economic models.
A reflection like this one is just what some art world players need. Nik Kosmas, formerly one half of collective AIDS-3D, is a great example of a convert from the “post-internet” into the “real world.” He quit his job as an artist in 2013 to become a personal trainer and sell supplement powders, realizing he could have a more tangible, more direct effect on other humans, where art was stuck in an insular bubble. At the Biennale, he is one of five instructors for the Open Workout series, weekly training sessions making use of Kosmas’ non-sculpture installation of colorful workout equipment at Akademie der Künste. After this spectacular showdown, maybe more people will follow in his footsteps. What DIS did, to the confused dismay of some critics, was bring the Biennale back to Berlin, acutely aware of what social and cultural changes the popularization of a global art world event like a biennial can have on a fast-changing city.
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